x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Prince Charles and the plants that talk back

As the scientific community investigate the secret life of plants, the world's best known "plant whisperer" gains support in the order of royal succession.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

One would assume that proponents of scientific theory are resolute in their belief that empirical research will eventually solve all the mysteries of the universe.

Yet, according to the collection of esteemed scientists who contributed to a special edition of the New Statesman, Britain's left-leaning news publication, this is not the case.

The limits of science feature saw learned experts from various disciplines - including astronomers, molecular biologists, epidemiologists and geneticists - muse over whether there is anything science can't explain.

Without fail, all of them agreed that there are some unknowns that will always remain unknown. It was also conceded by a few that even when science seems to settle on a firm conclusion, it invariably opens up further lines of inquiry.

This is aptly confirmed by a story that's doing the rounds at the moment concerning the secret life of plants.

Over the years, organisms of the vegetable kingdom have been considered inanimate life forms that spend their existence passively swaying in the wind without experiencing rational thought.

While they're known to be photosensitive and responsive to water, research now seems to suggest they use some primitive form of communication to "talk" to each other.

Using powerful microphones attached to corn saplings, botanists at the UK's Bristol University heard a series of clicking sounds coming from the roots.

Lead researcher Monica Gagliano told a British newspaper that the findings "open up a new debate on the perception and action of people towards plants", which suggested they should be treated as "living beings in their own right".

So how should we react to this discovery? Do plants have unalienable rights to life, liberty and happiness? Should people who neglect a houseplant and let it die face criminal charges? Are vegetarians just as barbaric as carnivores?

Obviously further studies are needed before the intelligence of plants can be quantified.

However, it's led to numerous commentators assuming that the experiment shows that, as plants can respond to sound, chatting to them could encourage vigorous growth.

This news is particularly timely for Prince Charles, who was once roundly derided for admitting that he regularly conversed with the plant life he nurtured in his gardens and glasshouses.

Back in 1986, he told a BBC interviewer: "I happily talk to the plants and trees, and listen to them. I think it's absolutely crucial.

"Everything I've done here, it's like almost with your children. Every tree has a meaning for me." This confession came at a time when his ongoing relationship with his then mistress Camilla Parker Bowles led much of the British public to express outright contempt for the Prince of Wales.

Many felt that the notoriously eccentric heir to the throne should be jumped in the line of succession, with the crown going straight to his firstborn, William, when the queen passed on.

Yet there has been a marked shift in opinion of him in recent years, culminating in a recent poll that revealed 44 per cent of Britons said they now favoured Charles taking over as monarch, compared to 38 per cent for William.

Much of this is down to his steadfast support for his mother during recent diamond jubilee celebrations - he made a rousing speech at a pop concert in her honour in which he showed a rare moment of tenderness by addressing her as "mummy" - rather than the fact that his dialogue with his botanical specimens is no longer deemed the behaviour of a crackpot.

But during the nadir of his popularity in times gone by, would anyone have supposed that Charles would one day be cherished by the population at large? Not even the greatest scientific minds on the planet could have predicted that.